By Ted Quant
Thirty Mexican workers suffering slave-like conditions in the strawberry fields of Bimbo's Best Produce decided they had to stand up for their rights and dignity. They made their decision in the same land where Africans were enslaved and fought slavery and the slave-like peonage* system that continued into modern times. The same conditions are being resurrected and enforced by the isolation and control of the immigrant worker by the employers using the so-called “guest worker program.”
On February 13th, the workers told their stories to a small delegation of African Americans who were asked by the New Orleans Workers' Center to come to the meeting to hear their stories and to support them like the abolitionists had done for enslaved Africans a hundred years ago. Each worker told his story in his own way, but they were all much the same.
“I am from the indigenous community of San Luis Potosin, in Mexico. The conditions there are very poor and there is no work.” US trade agreements have deepened the economic crisis in parts of Mexico and forced these men to become cheap, exploitable workers. “Recruiters came to our community and promised jobs with good pay and working conditions in the U.S. under the guest worker program. We had to barrow money, $800 each, in recruitment fees to come to America.” They said “according to the law it would be paid back when we started working.” They said “our wages were governed by the H2A program guidelines and would by law not be less than $8.01 per hour, the prevailing wage for the area. But that is not what happened. We were brought to Amite, Louisiana on H2A visas in a bus that dropped us off at a Walmart in the middle of the night last winter. We found out that all the promises recruiters had made were false: steady jobs, decent wages, good conditions - none of it was true.”
Instead, Charles Bimbo Relan confiscated their passports and refused to return them in order to hold them in his fields. He constantly changed the piece rate for a box of strawberries so that some days they worked for as little as $2 an hour. Picking strawberries is back-breaking work - the men are bent down over bushes for hours. When they stopped to stretch, Bimbo yelled that he would deport them back to Mexico. Under U.S. law, these men can only work for Bimbo. Guest workers can only work for one employer. So they had a choice: work under slave-like conditions, or go back to Mexico to joblessness and poverty.
The workers realized they have been trafficked to the fields of Amite. The workers explained that they wanted to confront their boss and present certain demands collectively because when they have done so individually he has refused and threatened them with deportation.
On Valentine's Day, they walked off the fields to reclaim their dignity. In solidarity, a delegation of African Americans, Damian Remos, Gerald Lenoir, and Ted Quant, empowered to conduct a citizen's arrest under Louisiana law, confronted Charles “Bimbo” Relan, for his felony violations of U.S. federal laws that define slavery, peonage, human trafficking, and servitude. Bimbo was confronted and forced to give the passports back but he refused to negotiate on his abusive and illegal treatment of the workers. He struck back with a vengeance. He illegally fired the workers and is proceeding with evicting them from the trailers where they were housed.
The workers are continuing their fight. Just before midnight on Valentine's Day, they went on strike, refusing to return to the degrading treatment in his fields.
*Peonage is defined as a former system under which a debtor was forced to work for a creditor until a debt was paid. This looks amazingly like what happens to immigrant workers, who borrow money to pay labor traffickers to come to America to work, and then are trapped in circumstances like those described in the article.